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Hearing for horseback riding trails draws dozens of supporters

Horse trail

A horseback riding trail is shown Tuesday at McClellan.

Forty-two people showed up for a public hearing Tuesday on a Calhoun County plan to spend $700,000 on a campground for McClellan’s horse trails, and not a single person in the crowd opposed the plan.

“This is a lot more support than you usually get at public hearings,” Commission Chairman Tim Hodges told the crowd in the commission chambers at the county administration building in Anniston.

Hodges and fellow Commissioner J.D. Hess held the event to take questions about the county’s plan to apply for a grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs to fund construction of a campground next to the horse trails at McClellan near Iron Mountain Road and Lake Yahou.

Horse enthusiasts from the Back Country Horsemen of America have long been lobbying local officials to turn some of the wooded hills on the former Fort McClellan into a system of horse trails. In March, the McClellan Development Authority voted to hand over 901 acres of the former base to the county for that purpose. Several weeks ago, the trail system, built by county workers and BCHA volunteers, opened to the public.

Supporters of the horse trails see them as a potential economic boon for the city, largely because out-of-state horse enthusiasts tend to shop for groceries and horse-related supplies while they’re camping near a horse trail.

“Folks will get one person to stay behind with the horses, and they they’ll all go out to a restaurant,” said Heflin resident Jerry Roach, a BCHA organizer. “One great thing about this trail is the restaurants are a lot closer than you usually see at a horse trail.”

The newly opened horse trail is open on weekends and has a place for primitive camping, but so far there’s nothing more elaborate. The county hopes to get $350,000 from ADECA, which will have to be matched with $350,000 in county money, to set up camping spaces with utility hookups, for riders who camp with trailers.

Hess and Hodges said they were holding a hearing primarily to show ADECA that the grant had local support, and horse enthusiasts didn’t disappoint. Riders, some in cowboy hats, packed the small commission chamber. County officials didn’t bring charts or present the campground plan, which everyone in the audience seemed familiar with.

The few questions from the audience were about where to send emails in support of the plan — and whether out-of-state riders should also write in.

“Your letters will be very valuable to the grant process,” said grant-writing consultant Kevin Kessler. He said the area is competing for a large slice of only $2.5 million that’s available statewide. Local support and the unusual nature of the proposal could help, he said. Most applicants ask for splash pads or playground equipment, he said.

Chad Jones came down from Attalla for the 5 p.m. meeting. He said he remembers great horseback riding in the Choccolocco area years ago, in an area where the woods have since been cleared. Now McClellan is the best local place to go, he said.

“This has still got a lot of big timber in it,” he said. “It’s beautiful countryside.”

Kessler said ADECA has until November 2020 to decide on the grants, but Hess said a decision could come as early as January. He said the county will be ready to work as soon as the money comes in.

“I can tell you this much,” Hess said. “We’re going to be drawed back like a flip, ready to go.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.